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Power Rankings: The questions, stars and matchups that are important in the second half

The second half of the NBA is here. Which stars, storylines and matchups are we watching on the track?

Can Lebron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers wrestle the leadership of the Western Conference from the Utah Jazz? Can Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors stay on the hunt? Can the New York Knicks challenge the Eastern Conference elite for a home advantage?

With the Close of trading on March 25th threatened, which teams will add another star and which ones will deal with the future? With the addition of a play-in tournament to every conference, more teams than ever are candidates to make a splash.

There’s drama on every corner as the teams prepare for the playoff push. Let’s reset the season and check where all 30 teams stand.

Note: During the regular season, our panel (ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin, Eric Woodyard, Royce Young, and Ohm Youngmisuk) rates all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of the teams that are playing the best basketball now and which teams look the most like title contenders.

Previous ranking: week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11


1. Utah Jazz
Record 2020-21: 27-9
Previous ranking: 1st

Storyline of the second half: Can jazz keep the NBA’s best record under control?

There is nothing unusual about Utah’s success in the first half as Jazz has by far the best point difference in the league (plus 8.8 per game), despite the fact that Utah has lost four of its last seven games. The Jazz is on break 2.5 games ahead in the West and has the softest schedule in the league in terms of opponents’ win share the rest of the way, making them well on their way to becoming the West’s top seed. The thought was that first place jazz might avoid the LA teams until the conference finale, but – surprisingly – it’s the Suns who are in second place right now.


Games that have to be seen

  • March 24th against nets: Utah has the chance to compete on national television with arguably the most talented team in the league. The Jazz had its worst performance of the season in a 130-96 defeat in Brooklyn despite the fact that Kevin Durant did not play and James Harden hadn’t made his way to the nets yet.

  • April 17 at Lakers: As if the team with the best record against the defending champions weren’t enticing enough Lebron James added some juice to this matchup by berating the all-stars of jazz for team selection.

  • May 7 v Nuggets: The Nuggets kicked Jazz out of the playoffs and more recently ended Utah’s winning streak in 11 games in January when Nikola Jokic had 47 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.


Courageous prediction: The jazz will join in 1999-2000 Indiana Pacers as the only teams who do the most 3s and the fewest allow.

– – MacMahon

This week: HOU, @GSW

2. Brooklyn networks
Record 2020-21: 24-13
Previous ranking: 3rd

Second half story: can Brooklyn keep everyone in place?

Health will be a top priority as Steve Nash manages the remaining regular season schedule. The downside, however, is the fact that the networks’ big three only played 186 minutes together in seven games. The talent is overwhelming – especially at the takeover of the former All-Star Blake Griffin – but with the April and May games going to be important, chemistry will be a question and a need to get some reps for the trio.

play

2:21

Stephen A. Smith explains how the addition of Blake Griffin greatly improves the Nets of the Nets’ odds of winning.

Games to see

  • March 15th against Knicks: Three months ago, not many expected this to be convincing and important! – Eastern Conference matchup. But there will be some serious hype surrounding this one, and a lot of intensity, because for the first time in a while the Battle of New York matters.

  • April 10 vs. Lakers: The Lakers travel to Brooklyn for a possible preview of the final. The first meeting in LA was good, but key components were also missing (Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis). This could be scaled more precisely to the size.

  • April 14 versus ’76: The Nets and Sixers have created some separation as the two favorites in the East, and while they are not guaranteed to meet in the East Final, it’s a possible prospect of a blockbuster playoff showdown.


Courageous prediction: The nets are getting better at defense. OK, maybe this doesn’t seem like a bold prediction, but have you seen the nets play defense? If they are to achieve their goals they will need to develop on the defensive, and with that priority they will at least show some signs of improvement.

– – Young

This week: BOS, DET

3. Philadelphia 76ers
Record 2020-21: 24-12
Previous ranking: 7th

Second half story: will Ben Simmons remain aggressive?

The Sixers know what they’re going to get from Joel Embiid, who is arguably the NBA’s best center and is certainly their most dominant low-post presence. But Simmons recently increased his aggression at the end of the offensive, and it made a notable difference. The most striking display of this came last month against the Utah Jazz, in a game Embiid didn’t play in and Simmons hit a career high of 42 points. But a lot has also happened when Embiid shared the pitch with him in the last few games. And when Simmons is this aggressive, using his unique combination of size and strength to attack the defenses, Philadelphia becomes a different team. Embiid rightly gets the most attention. But Simmon’s offense could ultimately determine what Philadelphia’s limit is.


Games to see

  • March 25 at Lakers: On the night of close of trading, the Sixers will visit the Lakers in a game that could help shape the narrative for this year’s MVP Award – a race arguably currently led by LeBron James and Joel Embiid.

  • March 30th at Nuggets: Who is the best center in the league: Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic? After Embiid missed the first game between these teams due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, we’ll see who can do better at this showdown towards the end of a very long Sixers road trip.

  • April 14 v Nets: This could be the most anticipated game of the second half. The two best teams in the east will compete against each other and we’ll see how the nets handle Embiid inside, which should be a clear advantage for Philadelphia.


Courageous prediction: Joel Embiid will be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. The Sixers should be a top two team in the east. So if Embiid can stay healthy, he has a great chance of getting his first MVP. If he does, it will be the first center to win since Shaquille O’Neal 20 years ago.

– – Bontemps

This week: @CHI, @WAS, SAS

4th Los Angeles Lakers
Record 2020-21: 24-14
Previous ranking: 2nd

Storyline of the second half: How important is it for the defending champions to follow the number 1 in the West?

The Lakers took first place in the conference for free last year, with each game of their title run being played on a neutral seat in the bubble. With Jared Dudley Will there be an incentive to refer to the fanless pedal as “probably the strangest arena to play in” in order to secure a home dish that may not be all that beneficial? Or can LA prioritize health and calm as it heads towards the playoffs rather than jockeying for the seeding position by sweating out the results?


Games to see

  • March 25th against the 76ers: The Sixers have had some success against the Lakers for the past couple of seasons Ben Simmons focus on LeBron and Joel Embiid Anthony Davis equalize. This could have MVP implications for James and Embiid.

  • April 4 vs. Clippers: Every Lakers-Clippers game since last season’s opening night has been a must-see on TV, and Sunday afternoon matchup at ABC is no different. It will be a yardstick to see how far both teams have come since that meeting in October 2019.

  • April 10 at Nets: The first Lakers-Nets affair was drained of its juice, with AD and KD both falling out. The rematch, with everyone healthy, could be a preview of the NBA finals. Plus, LeBron will have had some time convincing Kyrie Irving to talk trash about his free throw shooting skills.


Courageous prediction: LeBron will win his fifth MVP award in the league Bill Russell and Michael Jordan second most of all time Kareem Abdul-Jabbaris six. He finished second for the award two of the last three seasons. This year he will break through for the first time since 2013 to win it.

– – McMenamin

This week: GSW, @NOP

5. Phoenix Suns
Record 2020-21: 24-11
Previous ranking: 6th

Storyline of the second half: How hot will the sun be in the last 37 games of the season?

Phoenix holds the second best record in the league and just stares at Utah jazz. The only time Phoenix really had trouble this season was after a week of postponement due to the coronavirus, when they lost four out of five – including two major overtime losses to Denver. After a loss to Oklahoma City cut Phoenix to 8-8, the company won 16 out of 19. The biggest question now is how far away are the Suns’ two all-stars. Chris Paul and Devin Booker – will take them.

play

1:28

Stephen A. Smith explains why the Suns are legitimate contenders after their 114-104 win over the Lakers.

Games to see

  • April 28 vs. Clippers, April 30 vs. Jazz, May 9 at Lakers: I’ll sum up these games because they’ll be the last time the Suns will face the teams currently in the top four next to them in the Western Conference – Scoring stand. The Suns went 2-1 against these teams for the first half of the year, beating the Jazz and Lakers and dropping one against the Clippers. In the second half of the year they play against each team twice. All three games will be decisive – as will the games in the second half against Portland and Denver.


Courageous prediction: The suns will end up as top 2 seeds in the west.

– – Lopez

This week: @POR, IND

6th LA Clippers
Record 2020-21: 24-14
Previous ranking: 4th

Storyline of the second half: are the Clippers better than last year or are they facing another disappointing ending?

In 28 games, the Clippers looked like a better offensive team even with the sixth man of the year Montrezl Harrell away and Lou Williams‘inconsistent game. But in the clutch against strong teams, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have shown a tendency to stagnate and could use a little help. The Clippers defense has not yet lived up to its elite expectations. As last season, the Clippers had injuries and other health issues that affected the team’s continuity and chemistry. As long as Ty Lue has a healthy Leonard and George, the Clippers’ game will be closer to their 21-8 start than their 3-5 slip into break.


Games to see

  • Mar 27, versus ’76: Doc Rivers makes an emotional return to Staples to prove he’s in a better place with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons after the Clippers sacked him after seven seasons in LA.

  • May 1 v Nuggets: We should know a lot more about both teams after each team had ups and downs in the first half. MVP candidate Nikola Jokic will be a good test of the Clippers defense.

  • May 6 vs. Lakers: The Clippers and Lakers are preparing for the final 10 days before the postseason start, and hope it won’t be the last time they’ll face each other this season.


Courageous prediction: The Clippers will show signs that they are better than they were a year ago. George will continue his bounce back campaign, Leonard will remain a consistent MVP contender, and the offensive will be better under Lue.

– – Youngmisuk

This week: GSW, @NOP

7th Milwaukee Bucks
Record 2020-21: 22-14
Previous ranking: 5th

Storyline of the second half: Can the bucks find their groove for the playoffs?

Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to play at MVP level and shows why he won the award for two consecutive seasons. This year’s Bucks team, however, has seen its ups and downs as it tries to develop a rhythm for the postseason. That is their only focus for the second half because success in the regular season is no longer the ultimate goal. During the break, Milwaukee has won six of its last seven games after losing five games. “I think everyone is ready for a break and our boys will take advantage of that and get away with it a bit,” said Bucks manager Mike Budenholzer after the win in Memphis on Thursday. “I think the team is in a good place.”


Games to see

  • March 31 at Lakers: According to the players, regular season games don’t matter. However, this could be an exception. It’s the best of the best from East and West. Expect a good one.

  • May 4th against nets: One of the biggest threats to the bucks in the east is the new super team as well as James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will have a point to prove. Milwaukee has to bring its A-Game.

  • May 15 Against Heat: The Bucks, much like the late great James Brown, will be after “the big payback”. Last season the intense heat had Milwaukee’s number when they eliminated her in the postseason.


Courageous prediction: The Bucks will skip the 76s and nets to finish with the best record of the Eastern Conference.

– – Woodyard

This week: NYK, @WAS

8th. Portland Trail Blazer
Record 2020-21: 21-14
Previous ranking: 10

Storyline of the second half: can the blazers rise to a competitor?

The blazers will be whole again with the return of CJ McCollum and Jusuf NurkicIs that enough to get you to the top tier in the West? They stayed afloat – and a few more – behind the crunch-time brilliance of Damian Lillard and like the contributions of quality roleplayers Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony and Robert Covington. But when the blazers are at their full strength, they are deep and have a back space tandem that can hold their own against anyone.

play

2:10

Stephen A. Smith discusses why he would like to see Damian Lillard in a bigger market.

Games to see

  • Thursday against suns: Immediately after the break, the blazers get a measuring bar matchup against the suns. Not only is it a team that may still follow them in the standings, but it’s an opportunity to see where they are as the trading deadline approaches.

  • March 23 versus Nets: The backcourt matchup could be special – assuming McCollum is back – and the blazer duo adopt the contrasting style of Harden and Kyrie.

  • April 20 vs. Clippers: Paul George / Lillard’s beef doesn’t have a lot of heat this season, but every time something cooks on the stove it just takes a small fire to bring it back to a boil.


Courageous prediction

The blazers will stand pat by the deadline. You could get into the buyout market if something comes up, but if parts come back after an injury, the blazers will effectively make organic supplements, and that might be enough.

– – Young

This week: PHX, @MIN, @MIN

9. Denver nuggets
Record 2020-21: 21-15
Previous ranking: 9th

Second half story Can Michael Porter Jr.. raise the nuggets from the western candidate to the western power?

Sounds strange to say that a team retires after a Western Conference final, but Porter could really take the nuggets to another level. Nikola Jokic has played for a center at a historic pace as well Jamal Murray shows signs that he is getting healthier and is returning to his bladder shape. He scores 22 or more points in 12 games in a row. The nuggets have been hit by injuries and COVID-19, so it’s not all on Porter. But when Porter plays with strength and consistency, Jokic and Murray are even more deadly. Porter has double-doubled in five of his last six games. The Nuggets won four of those five games.


Games to see

  • Mar 30 vs. 76: No center has won an MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000. Now, Joel Embiid and Jokic are arguably two of the top three MVP competitors, and this clash should be epic.

  • May 3 in Lakers: The last regular season matchup between the two finalists of the Western Conference last year. The Nuggets would like to start the final two weeks of the regular season with a win over the champions.

  • May 7 at Jazz: Even if Murray and Donovan Mitchell Don’t put on the show they did in the bubble, Jokic versus Rudy Gobert is always entertaining. Jokic had 47 and 12 against Gobert earlier this season.


Courageous prediction: It’s hard to imagine after an incredible first half, but Jokic’s MVP case only gets stronger. Health issues aside, the streaky nuggets will be more consistent and successful in giving Jokic more MVP juice.

– – Youngmisuk

This week: @ MEM, DAL

10. San Antonio Spurs
Record 2020-21: 18-14
Previous ranking: 8

Plot of the second half: how will the Spurs reconcile the youth movement with the veterans?

All four Spurs players over 30 years old – DeMar DeRozan (31), Patty Mills (32), Rudy Gay (34) and LaMarcus Aldridge (35) – should be free agents at the end of the season. DeRozan is still averaging 20 points per night and a career high of 7.2 supports a game. Mills averaged a career high of 13.3 points per game, and Gay has been about the same player he has been since he made it to San Antonio. Aldridge is possibly better suited for a bench role and has done so in his last three games, with Jakob Poeltl making way in those competitions.


Games to see

  • Wednesday versus Mavericks: why not prepare for the start of the second half of the season? The Spurs and Mavericks (as well as the Wizards and Grizzlies) begin before most of the league gets back to work on Thursday.

  • March 24th vs. Clippers: It’s always fun when Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio, where he started his NBA career. This is also part of a NINE game homestand for the Spurs.

  • May 16 vs. Suns: After 10 of 12 games, the Spurs end the season with two back-to-back games against the Phoenix Suns as San Antonio is expected to return to the playoffs after ending their record streak last season.


Courageous prediction: In the second half of the season, no Spurs player will play in every game. Because of COVID-19 and injury problems only Mills, Poeltl and Dejounte Murray have played every game so far but with 40 games in the second half, Gregg Popovich will find time to rest his key figures.

– – Lopez

This week: @DAL, ORL, @PHI

11. Dallas Mavericks
Record 2020-21: 18-16
Previous ranking: 15th

Second half plot: can Kristaps Porzingis prove he’s the second best player in a legitimate playoff threat?

It’s the same big question from the start of the season, and Porzingis certainly didn’t give a positive answer in the first half of the season as he got back into shape after missing the start of the season after knee surgery. Porzingis had the worst defensive rating among NBA rotation players until recently, but he has shown signs of physical improvement over the past month. The Mavs need him as a consistent two-way force to complement the superstar Luka Doncic.

play

1:49

Zach Lowe and Kendrick Perkins discuss whether Luka Doncic or Joel Embiid would be the ideal gamer to start a franchise with.

Games that have to be seen

  • March 15 vs. Clippers: The Mavs defeated the Clippers (minus Kawhi Leonard) by 51 when the Bubble Playoff opponents met in the first week of the season. That adds some juice to the two-game set the teams will be playing in Dallas.

  • April 22nd vs. Lakers: This is the start of a two-game set against the other LA team. Really need some explanation as to why Luka vs. LeBron is worth spending a few hours on the couch?

  • April 27th at Warriors: The last Mavs Warriors meeting – if Doncic and Stephen Curry combined to score 99 points in a 134-132 competition – was perhaps the most entertaining game of the season.


Courageous prediction: The Mavericks will finish high enough overall to avoid the play-in tournament.

– – MacMahon

This week: SAS, @OKC, @DEN

12th intense heat
Record 2020-21: 18-18
Previous ranking: 12

Second Half Story: How Much Gasoline Does Jimmy Butler left in the tank?

After bringing the heat to the brink of a championship in the bladder last October, Butler had a very short off-season, dealing with some agonizing injuries and COVID-19 logs during the first half of the season. Few in the league are as mentally tough as Butler, but it will be interesting to see how much energy he’s left behind after such a long and tiring year of basketball.


Games to see

  • April 8th versus Lakers: Jimmy versus LeBron in a final rematch in Miami.

  • April 18 against nets: A showdown between KD and the nets in the late season should take place Bam Adebayo and the heat gives a good idea of ​​where they pile up in the east in the playoffs.

  • May 15 at Bucks: Playoff seeding figures are at stake in a rematch of last season’s east semifinals in which the heat slowed Giannis and forced someone else to beat her.


Courageous prediction: The Heat will handle 10 straight wins in the second half.

– – Friedell

This week: ATL, @NOP

13th Boston Celtics
Record 2020-21: 19-17
Previous ranking: 16th

Second half storyline: will Boston use the pre-close trading exception?

With the Celtics going through many ups and downs in the past few months, the topic everyone was talking about in Boston was what to do with the massive trade exception they created and when Gordon Hayward signed with the Charlotte Hornets in the low season. If the Celtics can leave, a player who makes the difference – presumably a big wing that can protect the Force forward – has to play alongside All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen BrownAll-world defender Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker, Boston has the chance to contest another deep playoff race. However, it is unclear whether such a player will be available in a potentially thin trading market and whether Boston, which has not acquired a player in a seasonal deal since Isaiah Thomas six years ago, can land him. But it’s the only question Celtics fans will ask themselves until the trading deadline is up.


Games to see

  • April 6 versus 76: These two teams played twice in January, but Boston wasn’t quite as strong. This will be the last meeting of the season between them and a chance for the two rivals to gauge each other.

  • April 23 at Nets: Kemba Walker and James Harden weren’t part of the first meeting between these teams, while Kevin Durant and Marcus Smart probably won’t be part of the second meeting next week. We hope all will be available in April as Boston may be the team best suited to keep up with the Nets due to their perimeter defensive talent.

  • May 9 Against Heat: After knocking out the Eastern Conference finals, Heat and Celtics will play twice in the final week of the season – games that could play a big role in picking a currently compact Eastern Conference playoff picture.


Courageous prediction: Either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum (or both) make up an All-NBA team. Both will have a lot of competition for an All-NBA spot, but with both of them having a great season and the Celtics likely ending up in the top four or five in the east, I think at least one will get an All-NBA award at the end of the season .

– – Bontemps

This week: @BRK, @HOU

14th Golden State Warriors
Record 2020-21: 19-16
Previous ranking: 11

Second Half Story: How Much Is James Wiseman Will you play down the track

Much of the focus will be on how Steph Curry can carry the Warriors down the track, but the bigger question for the organization is what impact the 19-year-old rookie will have after dealing with the ups and downs of his first track has in the league. Wiseman showed talent at times, but he’s still trying to get a feel for the game and he missed almost a month with a wrist injury. Its development will be crucial if the Warriors are to secure a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference playoff picture.

play

1:53

Guy Fieri explains why he expects warriors to regain importance.

Games to see

  • March 15 vs. Lakers: The Warriors split two games at Staples in the first half – now Steph and LeBron have another chance to face each other in the couple’s first game at the Chase Center.

  • April 19 at Sixers: Wiseman vs. Embiid should offer the rookie center a challenging litmus test as the Warriors should be in the middle of a final playoff push.

  • May 10 v Jazz: Both teams have playoff positions on the line as Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz try to end a formidable regular season against the former Kings of the Western Conference.


Courageous prediction: After an average of only about 20 minutes per game in the first half, Wiseman played at least five more minutes per game and an average of at least 15 points per game in the second half, up from about 12 in the first half.

– – Friedell

This week: @LAC, UTA

15th New York Knicks
Record 2020-21: 19-18
Previous ranking: 14th

Plot of the second half: how real is it?

The Knicks should be in the middle of the playoff image of the East at halftime, in the middle of the game behind the Celtics and in front of teams like the Raptors, Heat and Pacers. And that’s exactly where New York is in Tom Thibodeau’s first season in New York. It’s been an impressive season for the Knicks so far, but one that has many questions to answer over the next few months that will all answer the biggest question: is this a true playoff team? For as good as Julius Randle Can he maintain this level of play until the end of the regular season? Can the young players, led by RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, improve further? Will the Knicks try to add to this list for the playoff run?

It was a very fun season in New York. We’ll see how much fun the Knicks can be over the next few months.


Games to see

  • March 13 versus Donner: In between games against the Bucks, Nets and Sixers to begin the second half of the schedule, the Knicks must absolutely play this game in Oklahoma City, the one game they have a significant chance of winning during this one Route. With many well-known opponents in the second half, the Knicks must win the games they are supposed to play.

  • April 16 at Mavericks: Wed. Kristaps Porzingis This game, which is a bit of a squabble in Dallas, will serve as a marker of where both teams stand a few years after the blockbuster deal that brought Porzingis to Dallas after becoming a fan favorite in New York.

  • May 15 against Hornets: The Knicks were probably interested LaMelo Ball during the pre-design process. Now, Ball and the Hornets are set to hit Madison Square Garden for the final weekend of the regular season in a game that could have a massive impact on both teams.


Courageous prediction: The Knicks will miss the playoffs. I know this is going to draw the ire of the Knicks fans. Thibodeau did a great job this year, and Randle was a deserved all-star and has seen a remarkable change over the past couple of seasons. But the Knicks have a brutal schedule in the second half of the season and compete in fifth place in the East in the second half, just 2.5 games before the eleventh. You’re actually closer to 13th place than first. I think gravity will pull them down in the end, although the foundation they laid in Thibodeau’s first season is impressive nonetheless.

– – Bontemps

This week: @MIL, @OKC

16. Toronto Raptors
Record 2020-21: 17-19
Previous ranking: 13th

Storyline of the second half: what will happen to it? Kyle Lowry?

Lowry, the greatest player in franchise history, will be a free agent at the end of the season. That leaves Toronto with the question: will Lowry be part of its future? And if the answer isn’t a definitive yes, how should that affect the Raptors’ thought process as it enters the trading deadline? Vor allem in einem dünnen Handelsmarkt wird Lowry mit Sicherheit der beste verfügbare Spieler sein, wenn Toronto ihn irgendwohin verlegt. Das würde den Raptors geben – die vier wichtige freie Agenten gesehen haben (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol) in den letzten zwei Jahren entschädigungslos abreisen – einige Stücke, die weiterhin um ihren Kern herum aufgebaut werden sollen Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

Aber lohnt es sich, diesen Schritt wegzuwerfen, um eine Chance auf einen weiteren tiefen Playoff-Lauf zu erhalten? Macht es einen Unterschied, dass die beiden wahrscheinlichsten Teams, die für Lowry handeln müssen, die Mitbewerber der Eastern Conference von Sixers und Heat sind? Keine dieser Fragen hat eine klare Antwort.


Spiele zu sehen

  • 26. März gegen Sonnen: Mit einigen Spekulationen über die Raptors und die Zukunft von Lowry, wie wird dieses Team am Tag nach Handelsschluss aussehen?

  • 4. Mai bei Clippers: Leonard wird zum ersten Mal in dieser Saison in Tampa gegen die Raptors spielen, da Toronto möglicherweise versuchen wird, in der Playoff-Wertung im Osten aufzusteigen.

  • 16. Mai gegen Pacers: Das letzte Spiel der regulären Saison besteht aus zwei Teams, die voraussichtlich in den Playoffs im Osten spielen werden – und es ist ein Spiel, das für beide leicht Auswirkungen auf die Aussaat haben könnte. Angesichts des neuen Formats besteht auch die Möglichkeit, dass bestimmt wird, ob eines dieser Teams am Play-In-Turnier teilnehmen wird.


Mutige Vorhersage: Toronto wird im Osten Vierter. Die Raptors haben seit ihrem 2-8-Start 15-11 verloren – und das beinhaltet ein paar Niederlagen, um die erste Halbzeit ohne den größten Teil ihres Teams zu beenden. Wenn diese Form zurückkehren kann, sollte Toronto in der Lage sein, eine Reihe von Siegen zu erzielen und sich einen Top-4-Startplatz zu sichern.

– – Bontemps

Diese Woche: ATL, @CHA, @CHI

17th Memphis Grizzlies
Rekord 2020-21: 16-16
Vorheriges Ranking: 18

Handlung der zweiten Hälfte: Einmal Jaren Jackson Jr.. kommt von einer Knieoperation zurück, kann er einen Unterschied machen?

Die Grizzlies setzen auf den 21-jährigen Jackson Ja Morant als Franchise-Eckpfeiler für die kommenden Jahre. Bei 6-Fuß-11 hat Jackson eine seltene Mischung aus Größe, Sportlichkeit und tiefem Schießstand, aber Verletzungen haben seine Entwicklung verzögert. Memphis hat hochwertige, junge, ergänzende Stücke auf Lager, die auf den Punkt kommen Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman mit relativ späten Picks in den letzten beiden Entwürfen. Die Obergrenze für diese Generation von Grizzlies könnte dadurch bestimmt werden, ob sich Jackson zu einem Stern entwickelt.


Spiele, die man gesehen haben muss

  • 10. März gegen Zauberer: Wie wird Russell Westbrook Antworten, nachdem Morant die Zauberer für 35 Punkte und 10 Vorlagen bei einem Sieg in dieser Woche angezündet hat?

  • 23. April bei Trail Blazers: Dies ist das erste von drei Treffen in weniger als einer Woche zwischen den Grizzlies und Blazers. Morant und Damian Lillard hatten ein denkwürdiges Duell, als sich diese Teams das letzte Mal sahen, ein Portland-Play-In-Sieg.

  • 16. Mai bei Warriors: Es besteht eine gute Chance, dass dieses Finale der regulären Saison erhebliche Auswirkungen auf das Seeding hat.


Mutige Vorhersage: Die Grizzlies werden spät verblassen und unter .500 enden. Die Opfer werden gezwungen, nach der Pause 40 Spiele zu spielen.

– – MacMahon

Diese Woche: WAS, DEN, @OKC

18. Charlotte Hornets
Rekord 2020-21: 17-18
Vorheriges Ranking: 19

Second-half storyline: Can LaMelo close out his Rookie of the Year campaign?

LaMelo Ball is the runaway favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award after shining brightly on offense throughout the first half. He comes into the second half averaging 15.8 points, 6.3 assists and 6 rebounds for a Charlotte team that has actually become fun to watch after years in basketball exile. Ball appears to have the star power to gain people’s interest, but whether he has the kind of game to deliver the Hornets back to the postseason in his rookie year remains to be seen.

play

0:57

Kirk Goldsberry breaks down the numbers behind why LaMelo Ball is the clear favorite in the Rookie of the Year race.

Games to watch

  • March 18 at Lakers: LaMelo and LeBron square off for their first meeting ever.

  • April 4 at Celtics: Gordon Hayward goes back to Boston for the first time after leaving in free agency last fall. Terry Rozier also gets a chance to see some former teammates.

  • April 18 vs. Blazers: Seeing Damian Lillard and Ball go back and forth on offense should offer one of the most exciting offensive duels in the second half. Both teams can run and gun behind the point guards.


Bold prediction: LaMelo notches five triple-doubles in the second half and leads the Hornets to the play-in tournament.

– – Friedell

This week: DET, TOR

19. Indiana Pacers
2020-21 record: 16-19
Previous ranking: 17

Second-half storyline: Can the Pacers find another gear?

Domantas Sabonis continues to prove why he’s an NBA All-Star for the second time, with four triple-doubles this season, but the first half has gotten off to a bumpy start in Indiana under first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren. In addition to Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are having strong individual seasons, but the Pacers are in the middle of the league pack in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency. The goal in Indiana is playoff success, since they haven’t advanced past the first round since 2013-14. However, they have to get on the same page.


Games to watch

  • Friday at Lakers: Fresh off the All-Star break, the Pacers will face the ultimate test against the well-rested defending champs.

  • March 22 at Bucks: There are not many Eastern Conference teams that will provide a better test than reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Domantas Sabonis won’t back down, but it won’t be an easy night.

  • May 16 at Raptors: In the final game of the regular season, it’ll be the last chance to see how good this team really is on the road.


Bold prediction: Myles Turner will finish the season with the team’s highest blocks per game average in two decades, surpassing Theo Ratliff‘s mark (3.74) in the 2000-01 season.

– – Woodyard

This week: @LAL, @PHX

20. Chicago Bulls
2020-21 record: 16-18
Previous ranking: 20

Second-half storyline: Are the Bulls playoff-worthy?

If the postseason were to start today, the Bulls wouldn’t make the cut, but they’re right on the cusp, currently in ninth place in the East. This offseason, Chicago completely revamped its front office while bringing in new coach Billy Donovan, and so far it’s working. Donovan has brought the best out of Zach LaVine in his first All-Star season and has done a great job of working players in and out of the lineup due to injuries and health and safety protocols. Can they make the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season?


Games to watch

  • Thursday vs. 76ers: Prominent Bulls home games during the second half of the campaign include the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday and May 3. Joel Embiid put up a career-best 50 points versus Chicago on Feb. 19.

  • March 22 vs. Jazz: Utah is one of the hottest teams in the league. LaVine is a rising star and will have a chance to go up against another rising star in All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Should be a fun one.

  • May 11 vs. Nets: Chicago will face the Nets — one of the scariest opponents in the league — as it’s looking to fight for a playoff spot. Nothing will be easy.


Bold prediction: Chicago will make the playoffs and finish with a record above .500.

– – Woodyard

This week: PHI, MIA, TOR

21. Washington Wizards
2020-21 record: 14-20
Previous ranking: 21

Second-half storyline: Can the Wizards maintain this turnaround?

After enduring a 3-12 start that included a COVID-19 outbreak that quarantined half the team, the Wizards went into the All-Star break having won eight of their past 11 games. Washington is now somehow just two games out of the eighth spot. Bradley Beal shows no signs of slowing down as the league’s leading scorer, and Russell Westbrook is looking more like himself with five triple-doubles in his past 10 games. The Wizards are even winning close games. But the second half will be no joke as Washington has to play 38 games after the break with eight sets of back-to-backs.


Games to watch

  • March 21 at Nets: The last time these two teams met, Westbrook scored 41 points and Beal had 37 to help Washington erase a five-point deficit in the final eight seconds and stun the Nets, 149-146.

  • April 23 at Thunder: Yes, Westbrook is two stops removed from his time in Oklahoma City, but he and Scott Brooks return to their old stomping grounds. The Wizards will need a vintage performance from Westbrook against his old team to keep their playoff hopes alive.

  • May 12 at Hawks: This is not only the second of consecutive games at the Hawks but it is also the end of a pivotal five-game road swing that could make or break Washington’s playoff hopes.


Bold prediction: Despite all the turbulence they have endured and a challenging schedule down the stretch, Westbrook and Beal are going to will the Wizards back into the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18.

– – Youngmisuk

This week: MEM, LAC

22. New Orleans Pelicans
2020-21 record: 15-21
Previous ranking: 23

Second-half storyline: Which players will stick around for the Zion era?

Zion Williamson is going to continue to do Zion-like things, so the rest of the season should be about identifying which players on the current roster will work with him and Brandon Ingram moving forward. That’s where Lonzo Ball comes in. Ball is averaging career highs in points per game, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage this season as he adjusts to a new role in the half-court offense. Ball is a restricted free agent after the season and could command a hefty salary, while the Pelicans are already set to have Ingram’s max contract, and Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams on the books. Does Ball fit long term? Or will New Orleans look to deal him prior to the March 25 deadline? They could also roll the dice with offers by other teams this summer because they have the right to match.

play

1:56

Zion Williamson scores 15 of his 26 points in the third quarter as New Orleans beats Utah 129-124.

Games to watch

  • March 14 vs. Clippers: After beginning the second half against Minnesota and Cleveland, the Pelicans start a daunting eight-game stretch against teams with winning records. This game is the start of that stretch and could say a lot about how the rest will go.

  • March 23 vs. Lakers: This could be the second time former Pelicans star Anthony Davis faces off against Williamson in the Smoothie King Center, if Davis is back healthy for the Lakers by then. It’s also the last game before the trade deadline for New Orleans, which could look to move some players.

  • May 10 vs. Grizzlies: The Pelicans could be fighting for a playoff spot, a play-in tournament berth or long out of the race entirely, but any time Williamson and Memphis star Ja Morant face off, it’s must-see TV.


Bold prediction: The Pelicans will miss out on the playoffs and the play-in tournament. While the offense has been clicking, the Pelicans’ porous and 29th-ranked defense will hold them back.

– – Lopez

This week: MIN, CLE, LAC

23. Atlanta Hawks
2020-21 record: 16-20
Previous ranking: 22

Second-half storyline: Can McMillan lead a second-half surge?

Atlanta already made a big move by firing coach Lloyd Pierce just two and a half years into his tenure with the team. Now, the second half of the season should be figuring out how the team responds to interim coach Nate McMillan. McMillan told reporters on March 2 that he accepted the job only after Pierce told him he needed to “take this opportunity.” The first two games under McMillan have been a success. The Hawks defeated the Miami Heat by 14 in his first game and then came back from 19 down to defeat the Orlando Magic the following night. With player buy-in, McMillan could get the team back on the right track of a season that started with playoff aspirations.


Games to watch

  • March 20 vs. Lakers: This is the start of an NBA-long eight-game road trip for Atlanta. They’ll depart Atlanta on March 19 and won’t return until after they play the Pelicans on April 2.

  • April 15 vs. Bucks: The Hawks’ first game against a team in the top four in the East in the second half doesn’t come until here.

  • May 6 at Pacers: McMillan gets a chance to travel to the team that let him go in the offseason. The Pacers are one of the teams in the mix for the final playoff spots the Hawks are chasing as well.


Bold prediction: Trae Young‘s shooting touch and his penchant for drawing free throws will give him a chance to break the Hawks’ all-time single-game scoring record of 57, one shared by Hall of Famers Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins. – – Lopez

This week: @TOR, SAC, CLE

24. Oklahoma City Thunder
2020-21 record: 15-21
Previous ranking: 24

Second-half storyline: Will the Thunder deal at the deadline?

It’s no secret the Thunder have won more games than they probably expected or even intended to at this point. So with the second half of the season ahead and the gap growing between them and the worst records in the league, the Thunder’s chances to land a top-four pick in the upcoming draft are growing slimmer. They appear to be one of the league’s most likely trade deadline dealers, and the opportunity is still there to trim the roster and field a more, ahem, developmentally minded team. George Hill, Al Horford and Mike Muscala should be very available for any interested contender.


Games to watch

  • Sunday vs. Mavericks: It will be one year since the NBA, and really, the world, changed in Oklahoma City. It will be a game played in an empty arena with intense protocols still in place, but it will also be a night of reflection of the night the NBA shut down in 2020.

  • April 3 at Trail Blazers: The Thunder have quite the history with Portland star Damian Lillard and any time OKC and the Blazers match up, something fun happens. In the past few years, it’s been much less fun from the Thunder’s perspective, but a good game is a good game.

  • April 23 vs. Wizards: It’s another return to OKC for Westbrook, and this time, in another new uniform. It won’t carry hardly any of the same energy — because there will be no fans — and he has already been back once before, but for the Thunder, it’s always a special night when a legendary franchise player returns.


Bold prediction: The Thunder will be one of the most active teams at the trade deadline. General manager Sam Presti has been chopping down the roster since last summer, and with another transactional window open, if there are takers, Presti won’t hesitate.

– – Young

This week: DAL, NYK, MEM

25. Sacramento Kings
2020-21 record: 14-22
Previous ranking: 27

Second-half storyline: How will Marvin Bagley III finish off his third season?

The former No. 2 pick saw his scoring improve from December to January to February, as he has settled into a consistent starting role, but he’s still playing less than 26 minutes per game. Will he earn more playing time and start to deliver on the potential that led the Kings to take him a pick before Luka Doncic in 2018? Or will he continue on his path as a high-level role player, making the Doncic decision all the more damning for the Kings franchise?


Games to watch

  • March 15 at Hornets: Tyrese Haliburton missed the Kings’ first tangle with the Hornets and Rookie of the Year front-runner LaMelo Ball because of a calf injury. Here’s hoping he’s healthy for the next showdown.

  • April 12 at Pelicans: Onto another pair of guards, the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox and the Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball, who entered the league as rookies together a few years back after clashing in their college days. Fox scored 43 points in a five-point loss to New Orleans while Ball was sidelined in January.

  • May 16 vs. Jazz: If Sacramento’s chances come down to needing a win in the regular-season finale to make the playoffs, it will have to go through the red-hot Jazz to get it.


Bold prediction: Buddy Hield will hit 13 3-pointers or more in a game. Klay Thompson holds the all-time record with 14, and only two other players (Zach LaVine and Steph Curry) have ever hit 13. Hield will top his personal best of 11-for-21 from deep.

– – McMenamin

This week: HOU, @ATL

26. Cleveland Cavaliers
2020-21 record: 14-22
Previous ranking: 25

Second-half storyline: Who sind these guys?

Cleveland started the season 3-0, later had a 10-game losing streak that lasted most of the month of February and then won four out of five heading into the break. Sitting 2 1/2 games behind Indiana for the final play-in round spot with 36 games left to play — but holding a better record against conference opponents than four teams above them in the playoff picture, the Pacers included — will the Cavs make a push if Kevin Love returns healthy and provides spacing for Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro to keep progressing? Or will it be back to the lottery for the third straight season since LeBron James left?


Games to watch

  • March 26 at Lakers: James had his best night of the season the last time he met his old squad: 46 points on 19-of-26 shooting, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. We’ll see what he can do for an encore.

  • April 1 vs. 76ers: The Cavs are 2-0 against the Sixers — who entered the All-Star break with the No. 1 record in the Eastern Conference — and will have a chance to complete the season sweep.

  • May 16 at Nets: Cleveland will face the league’s most potent offense in the regular-season finale with potential playoff seeding — or lottery positioning — on the line.


Bold prediction: Jarrett Allen will be the last man standing in the Cavs’ crowded center rotation. With Andre Drummond already pulled from action while Cleveland canvasses the league for a deal, JaVale McGee will also find a new team. The pair’s departures will free up minutes for Allen and potentially stock general manager Koby Altman’s cupboards will some more draft assets.

– – McMenamin

This week: @NOP, @ATL

27. Orlando Magic
2020-21 record: 13-23
Previous ranking: 26

Second-half storyline: Just how much will the front office shake up this roster?

The Magic have been languishing in basketball mediocrity for several years now — a level that bad luck and injuries have played a major role in this season. They’re not awful, but they also don’t have enough star power to be nationally relevant. What happens next? Nikola Vucevic has had an All-Star year, Evan Fournier has proven he’s a capable NBA scorer and Aaron Gordon has had some nice moments, but would the Magic consider moving any of the three veterans to change things up as they wait for Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz to get healthy from their respective serious knee injuries?


Games to watch

  • March 26 vs. Blazers: With the trade deadline the day before, it will be intriguing to see how the roster looks when Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers roll into town.

  • April 16 at Raptors: With the Raptors heading back to Toronto next season, this game could mark the last installment of an interesting Interstate 4 clash between Tampa and Orlando in Florida.

  • April 22 vs. Pelicans: It will be fun to see Stan Van Gundy back barking up and down the sidelines in Orlando. Van Gundy led the Magic to their best moment of the post-Shaq era by guiding the organization to a 2009 Finals appearance.


Bold prediction: After registering double figures in just two games in the first half, rookie Chuma Okeke scores double figures in 10 games in the second half as his game continues to improve under head coach Steve Clifford.

– – Friedell

This week: @MIA, @SAS, MIA

28. Houston Rockets
2020-21 record: 11-23
Previous ranking: 28

Second-half storyline: What will the Rockets do before the trade deadline?

Any realistic hope of the Rockets sneaking into the playoffs as a pesky underdog ended when Christian Wood sprained his right ankle for the second time. He hasn’t played since then — and the Rockets haven’t won, entering the break with a 13-game losing streak. Wood could be back after the break, but it’s painfully apparent that the Rockets are in the early stages of a rebuilding process, so it makes sense to explore trading veterans such as Victor Oladipo, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon for young players and/or draft picks.

play

1:51

The Rockets thank James Harden for his eight-plus seasons playing in Houston with video during a timeout.

Must-see games

  • March 19 vs. Pistons: This could be Wood’s first opportunity to face his former team since the Pistons didn’t make an effort to re-sign him in free agency. Detroit is also one of only two teams with a worse record than the Rockets, who have top-four protection on the first-round swap rights they owe the Thunder.

  • March 21 vs. Thunder: It’s not quite as sexy as Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook matching up after they were swapped for each other. But this game could have significant lottery implications. If the Rockets don’t finish in the top four, it’s almost a certainty they will end up with the Miami Heat’s pick, which the Thunder can swap instead of their own.

  • March 31 at Nets: The Rockets’ management gets to pretend again that it’s just so happy to see James Harden thriving with the Nets.


Bold prediction: There won’t be any 30-somethings in the Rockets’ starting lineup the last week of the season.

– – MacMahon

This week: @SAC, @UTA, BOS

29. Detroit Pistons
2020-21 record: 10-26
Previous ranking: 29

Second-half storyline: Can the Pistons find silver linings?

The Pistons franchise has hoisted three championship titles over the years, so the folks in Motown understand that they’re far from that level. When Detroit hired Troy Weaver as its new general manager, everyone around the team knew that the Pistons were in for a rebuild. Now that they’ve completed a buyout with six-time All-Star Blake Griffin, the Pistons can move on and continue to develop the young talent on the roster such as Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson and Isaiah Stewart. The theme of the second half is to continue to develop the younger guys as they’re looking for a big reward in the future.


Games to watch

  • March 26 at Nets: The young Pistons face the ultimate test against a fully healthy Brooklyn squad.

  • May 3 vs. Magic: Orlando will start the second-half of the season just three games ahead of Detroit in the standings with lottery positions still in the air.

  • May 11 vs. Timberwolves: The two teams at the bottom of each conference’s standings could being facing off with the worst record in the league at stake.


Bold prediction: The Pistons will not finish with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

– – Woodyard

This week: @CHA, @BRK

30. Minnesota Timberwolves
2020-21 record: 7-29
Previous ranking: 30

Second-half storyline: Can they build some actual future momentum?

It has been a messy season for the Wolves, in myriad ways. They were ravaged by injuries and COVID-19 issues early on, then they fired their coach in a questionable manner, and they haven’t really improved in the wake of it. But at their core, they still hold on to the prospect of getting a true look at the duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell that has seen such limited time together. They have young talent in Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. The second half of the season will show if they can all work together.


Games to watch

  • Thursday at Pelicans: Right out of the break, the Wolves need to start building toward something. They’ll have had time off, time to get healthier, time to install some of Chris Finch’s plan. How will this look in action against a fellow young, developing team that is already a few steps ahead?

  • April 29 vs. Warriors: It’s the No. 1 pick (Edwards) against the No. 2 pick (James Wiseman). It also is a game with the looming context of the deadline trade from last season that moved Russell to Minnesota and has a highly valuable protected pick possibly in the Warriors’ possession.

  • May 16 vs. Mavericks: It’s the last game of a difficult campaign that the Wolves probably would very much like to get in the rearview mirror. 1-2-3, Cancun.


Bold prediction: The Wolves go on a small winning streak. Hard as it might be to believe, the Wolves are better than their record. If they can get some luck with good health and see some improvement with their young players, they could win four or five in a row and grab some momentum for next season.

– – Young

This week: @NOP, POR, POR

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